Where have I loved you before
Was it just yesterday
Or millennia ago
Your face is so different
Yet you, you're you, just you
Still glowing and silvery bright
Steve wakes up just as the sun starts to peek into the room. He feels stiff, likely from the long battle yesterday, and a bit chilly. With a deep yawn he stretches his left arm out across the bed. For a moment he is disoriented, but upon opening his eyes he realizes the large amount of empty bed between himself and the night stand is only because he migrated completely to one side. Usually, he ends up in the exact center, sprawled to make use of all available space. With that in mind he rolls once and swipes up his phone to check the time.
It is early, but not enough for him to consider another bout of sleep. He feels decently rested and decides the sun has the right idea about rising. Another roll has him sitting up with his feet firmly on the floor. He stretches, cracks his neck and takes a second to look over the room. It feels uncomfortably quiet, so he calls out for JARVIS to start his newest playlist on low.
Calm guitar fills the room, abating some of the unease in his gut. He stands, shakes out his shoulders and decides a long run through central park would go a long way to washing out any lingering adrenaline from yesterday. Slipping on a plain T-shirt, some cotton shorts and ankle socks, he makes his way out of the bedroom.
The sitting room is just as he left it, but again there is a strange atmosphere lingering in the shadows. Before he can analyze it fully though, the soft rhythm of his song is interrupted by Jarvis letting him know the coffee is finished brewing.
“Coffee?” He repeats dummly, looking up at the ceiling in confusion. In all the time he’s been staying here, he can not remember having coffee before his run. Nor does he recall ever having it automated by JARVIS, taking the preparation upon himself when he does indulge.
“Yes, Captain. It is your prefered blend.” JARVIS responds smoothly and Steve can make out the smell of it from the archway between the kitchen and living room. It seems JARVIS picked up on some silent queue from Steve’s body, because the coffee smells like the best idea ever.
He shrugs it off and thanks JARVIS as he takes the cup, sipping it greedily when he realizes his creamer is already mixed in. Seems Stark as been tinkering with his kitchen appliances. The idea makes him feel unreasonably warm, so he swallows the last of his cup and rinses it in the sink.
His running shoes are leaning against the front door like always, but they look like he took them off in some kind of hurry instead of stacking them neatly against the wall. For a long moment he just looks at them, searching through his memory for the hasty removal of the sneakers. The image comes up like always, eidetic memory still intact it seems. It feels a little odd, he’s never been so thirsty as to just kick them off without preamble before. Yet, he can almost feel the urgency behind it even now. Something about it tastes off.
JARVIS interrupts him, likely growing concerned with Steve just standing motionless and contemplating his shoes for a solid two minutes. Deciding he needs the run more than usual, Steve snaggs them and slips them on. He walks out the door without further rumination.
The run goes smoothly, as does the rest of the morning. He eats a large breakfast on his own floor and goes up to the common living room afterwards. No one else seems to be up yet, but he prefers to write up his reports in the expansive and bright space.
For a few hours, everything seems completely normal. He sits at the glass dining and work table, makes himself a mid morning smoothie and drinks it while writing up the detailed debriefing. At one point, Bruce makes his way in and sits at the table to drink some tea and chat. Steve makes a few notes on the report as they talk, listens when Bruce describes his latest experiment and laughs along at the story of Stark messing up the previous step with an ill timed interruption.
When Bruce leaves, Steve takes a break from the report to eat lunch and sit on the bench by the far window. He looks out on the large expanse of New York swathed in the bright glow of early afternoon and finds himself grinning at the sight of a red and gold blur approaching the Tower. When it passes under the common floor balcony, Steve bites his lip in disappointment, but resolves to wait patiently for Iron Man to finish his business with Stark. His Shellhead always comes up for a conversation before leaving anyways.
That of course is when things become completely not normal. Two hours pass, which Steve fills with finishing the preliminary write up and chatting with Natasha and Clint when they both pass through for snacks and some TV time. All the while, his eyes keep glancing up at the elevator, waiting for the familiar metallic figure to step out.
When Natasha leaves the room, a quirked eyebrow and shake of the head as a farewell, he decides waiting here is getting ridiculous.
“JARVIS, would you let Iron Man know I’m going down to the gym if he would like to spar when he’s done with Mr. Stark?” His report saved, he tucks his tablet under his arm and makes his way to the elevator. He is still in athletic clothes, so he will only need to drop off on his floor to deposit his Starkpad and maybe grab his large water bottle. He makes it into his kitchen before realizing JARVIS never answered his request. “JARVIS, will Iron Man be able to stop by?”
The pause this time feels heavy, but only lasts a few moments before it’s cut with, “I’m afraid he is unavailable today.” Steve draws up short, large water bottle in one hand, the other stretching out to turn on the tap.
“What?” He says without thinking, but decides the sentiment is certainly warranted. Iron Man never turns down a match while he is in the tower. Even when he’s busy he will tell Steve when they will be able to meet up. He’s never just, not been available with no explanation.
“I’m afraid, “ A pause, one that stretches long enough that Steve contemplates repeating his last question, “Iron Man is unavailable for a sparring match today.”
“Uh, alright.” Steve finally manages, looking down to fill his water bottle and take in the short response. “Does he, well, does he know when he will be available?”
“Not at the moment,” is all he gets in return and he feels a little spike of anxiety dig its way under his ribcage. Iron Man did take off pretty fast after making sure everyone was alright. Steve usually berated him into admitting at least some of his injuries, but the battle had been standard, so he’d let him go without the usual questioning. It felt like maybe that had been a huge mistake.
“He’s not hurt is he?” Steve asks, quickly setting aside the filled bottle and turning back towards his front door. He is not above going straight to Stark’s workshop to make sure himself. It may not be the most welcoming place, and he may have been kicked out of it on multiple occasions, but he is willing to put up with Stark’s snarking to make sure his best friend is alright. “He seemed pretty okay after the battle. I think we all made it out with minimal hits. He took off pretty quick though, so I might have mis–”
“Iron Man is unharmed.” JARVIS cuts in before Steve can ramble himself into a full panic. It does little to stop his momentum though and he makes it out his door and into the elevator foyer in quick steps. However, before he can press his thumb into the digital elevator keypad, the screen goes black and Steve jerks his head up in incredulity.
“Is there something going on?” He demands, voice gone tight.
“Mr. Stark would like me to apologize, but the situation is classified.” JARVIS reassures him, tone about as truly apologetic as could be possible. It makes some of the anger fizzle out, but he still feels about ready to scale down the side of the building if the elevator remaines locked.
“Classified?” Steve manages after a few calming breaths, deciding to go back into his room so the blank screen would stop taunting him. Iron Man was Stark’s employee before he was anything else. As much as Steve wanted to, he really didn’t have any right to demand information. He just felt so off-kilter today and he knows Iron Man’s company would go a long way to easing that.
“Yes.” JARVIS reassures. “It should be resolved soon, but the time table is uncertain.”
“Oh.” Steve sighs deeply and sits down unceremoniously on his plush couch. His head tips back and he lets it rest there as he closes his eyes.
There is always this angry bundle in his nerves whenever Iron Man goes off on a mission by himself. At least with Clint and Natasha he knows SHIELD usually sends them off together or with a group of other agents. Iron Man always goes alone and it feels wrong in just about every way possible. Steve is his partner, they fight alongside each other, lead the Avengers together. It makes him itch whenever he can’t be of assistance, when he is no better than benched. Stark never allows it though, and Steve has tried many times. He promised to sign any non-disclosure agreements, just about begged Iron Man to talk some sense into his boss. In the end though he respected Iron Man's choice for secrecy and Stark’s right to decide his employees responsibilities. “Well, okay. Tell Shellhead good luck for me will ya, JARVIS?”
“Of course.” JARVIS still sounds apologetic and Steve takes it with a tense smile. “He sends his thanks.”
Things only get weirder over the next few days. Every morning he wakes up on the far side of the bed and can’t help but feel like there is some old warmth missing. JARVIS started playing music automatically after the third morning Steve requested it, but still his bedroom feels too quiet. The coffee continues and for all it is a nice indulgence, it is not something he remembers setting up. If the oddities ended there, he might have just written them off as some lingering feeling from a recurring dream he doesn’t remember in the morning. However, they are just the beginning and by far the least confusing things.
Before bed on the first day he found a sock under the couch, some thin and silky thing that looked more expensive than anything he ever wanted to own. The afternoon of the second had him looking through his nightstand for one of the bookmarks Iron Man bought him only to find a tattered and dog eared paperback. It looked vaguely familiar, but he could say with absolute certainty he did not put it in there. There is a set of miniature screwdrivers left half open and discarded in one of the kitchen drawers and two coffee mugs he’s never seen before in the cabinet above the sink.
That also ignores the list of things he can not find anywhere. He is missing several pairs of underwear, a good dozen T-shirts and two pairs of jeans. His old straight blade razor is also nowhere to be found for three solid days, but reappears the morning of the fourth cleaned like it is brand new. Also, his favorite blanket seems to have evaporated in the wash, because even a thorough search of the common floors comes up empty. It, unlike the razor, stays missing even after he asks JARVIS to assist him.
To add on top of everything, sometimes during his run or walking to lunch he will pass by some storefront and stop to stare at it. Sometimes it is just a feeling, some urge to go in and see if they still have the red scarf he remembered eyeing a few months ago. Sometimes there is some half faded memory, not unlike those before he got the serum, tickling the back of his head. He walks passed a little Italian restaurant and can practically taste the butter in their specialty carbonara, knowing full well he never once set foot in the establishment.
He feels on the edge of a breakdown and completely convinced he is actually losing his mind when he finds the most insane thing. It is the morning of the fifth day, just yesterday he discovered that he now only owns about 8 pairs of socks instead of the near sixteen he remembers, and he is digging through the scarce pile in search of some running socks when his hand hits something solid tucked in the back corner. He starts a bit, but circles around the cube and pulls it out.
For long minutes he just stares at it. The box is light weight, a deep shimmering black and made of some kind of metal. There is no latch, no markings on the outside, but Steve knows exactly what lays inside it. He can remember the ring like it came from some far away dream. It will be a simple tungsten, hammered and brushed into an imperfect pattern on the outside but baby smooth inside. There he will find a simple engraving in a script too neat to be called cursive, but soft and swaying all the same.
“Together.” He mouths to himself, fingers too tight against the box. He can feel the material starting to give, can see the little indents pushing in under his grip. It feels pointless, but he opens the top with a flick of his thumb and gasps at the ring sitting in a bed of deep red velvet. His knees feel like water, a fresh sweat is breaking out on his skin. Yet, he stays upright and fused in place.
“Captain, are you alright? Your breathing is elevated and your heart rate is well outside normal bounds.” JARVIS calls out and Steve jumps. The box falls to the ground and Steve dives after it without thinking. Luckily, the ring stays snug in its seat, but Steve is now on his hands and knees holding a tiny box that should not exist.
“I’m fine. I’m- I’ll be fine.” Steve finally answers and forces himself to close the box. It makes it somewhat easier to stand up, to place it gently where he found it. Maybe if he thinks hard enough it will disappear.
“Certainly. Your coffee just finished brewing if that would help.” The mention makes him slump further down, leaning to rest his hands and head on the top of the dresser. Something is happening, something is wrong.
“Thank you.” Steve replies, but it sounds half strangled even to his own ears. Kindly, Steve thinks, JARVIS does not comment on it. He also says nothing when Steve decides to forgo the drink and simply head out for his run without another word.
The run is helpful for all of fifteen minutes, but he follows his usual trail without thinking and ends up at the door of Mrs. Basil’s Emporium. He pants, breath too heavy for the pace he set, and stands outside long enough to get a few looks by passers-by. It seems completely reasonable to step inside.
The store is a little dark, most of the light coming from the large windows up front instead of any overhead. It is set up not unlike one of the thrift stores Clint likes to visit, a mix of books and glass figurines sharing shelves sat next to racks of clothing. Large framed paintings and photos lean up against the left wall and three aisles break up half of the otherwise open space. Most of it is filled with a mixture of arm chairs and side tables, though one full size couch is pushed in front of the window just beside a large oak counter set up to be the check out. It is quaint and Steve relaxes upon realizing he is looking at it all for the first time.
“Oh, have you been in here before?” A voice calls out and he looks up, startled to find an older woman with three large flowers sticking out of her messy grey hair. She is near paper thin, but looks warm and inviting all the same. Steve’s stomach rolls and not just because of how underdressed he feels in his already sweaty workout gear. Her name is Anna and Steve remembers her fat orange tabby cat that lives on the staircase behind the counter.
“I-I don’t think so.” He manages and she seems completely unphased by the answer. There is no hint of recognition in her eyes and her smile is still warm. She nods and moves to sit on a stool behind the counter. The rain yesterday would have irritated her knee replacement.
“Well, let me know if you need any help. The back wall is all 50 percent off.” She tells him and he pulls his eyes off of her. The room is chilled, though he knows the A/C hasn’t been fixed since her husband passed two years ago.
He buys a plain black baseball cap and listens to her talk about the tom cats preference for sardines like he never scratched behind its ear.As if he never bought a set of fine leather gloves too small for his own hands from this very store. He knows, is completely certain he never once came in here.
The hat is rather nice to have, as his morning ruminations got him running with the sun much higher in the sky than usual. When he passes the old Italian restaurant, he crosses the street and resolutely refuses to look at it.
By the time he makes it back to the Tower, his panicking has subsided. He’s managed to convince himself the thing with Anna is just a weird case of Deja Vu and his tendency to remember faces over places. Even if she is actually a symptom of some larger plot involving unknown socks and missing blankets, hyperventilating about it will help absolutely nothing.
He chugs about half the container of orange juice before taking a long shower. When he gets out and dresses he keeps his eyes turned up when grabbing a pair of socks. Turns out kids have got something good going there with the whole ‘if I can’t see you, you don’t exist thing.’
When he gets up to the common floor, he immediately starts searching for someone. Today is a sign that he should bring his team in on this issue, or at least get someone to reassure him that forgetfulness isn’t a sign of some super villain plot. Luckily, he spots Iron Man landing on the balcony just as he makes it into the living room.
They’ve only managed to see each other a handful of times since the rebuked training session. It certainly isn’t unusual to go a few weeks with only a few shared moments, but something about the lack of him is only adding to Steve’s worry. Even when they managed to catch each other, Iron Man is stiff and strangely on edge throughout. He hesitates before speaking and lets Steve lead their talks more than he ever used to. It is starting to fray at Steve’s edges and he needs to sort all this out if only to get his goofball of a best friend back.
“Morning, Cap.” Iron Man calls out as he steps in through the automatic glass door. His foot falls are steady as he makes his way straight to where Steve is now sitting on a set of heavy metal and black cushioned arm chairs. They are designed to hold all of the armor’s weight without issue and comfortable enough for Steve to spend long hours in them. Which he may have done a near uncountable number of times, both with and without Iron Man next to him.
“Hey, Shellhead.” Steve replies, easy smile spreading his lips. It feels nice to sit down for a chat together, feels like it has been years. Distantly, he remembers that they have gone much longer than a week without so much as speaking, but he pushes that thought away. He has every right to miss his friend no matter the length of separation.
When Iron Man pauses to look him over after sitting down, Steve jumps right to his preferred topic of conversation. ”Can I talk to you about something.”
“Sure.” Iron Man replies easily enough, but even through the voice modulator Steve can make out an under current of hesitation. He takes a breath and looks at the indistinct expression of the faceplate until Iron Man brings a hand up in a gesture of ‘go on’.
“Well.” Steve starts, then promptly realizes he actually has no idea how on earth to explain the situation. Rubbing a hand over his face and flopping back deeper into his seat, he admits as much. “I don’t really know how to explain this.”
“You can tell me, Cap.” Iron Man responds immediately, he leans forward a little and tilts his head. Knowing he has the man’s full attention, he tries again.
“Well, I feel like something is off.” He begins and shakes his head because honestly that makes it all sound so simple. “More like everything is off.”
Iron man examines him, head tilting a little more and glowing eyes completely turned to his face. Steve can practically see the eyes underneath scanning through every possible readout of his current vitals. He can’t really remember when he started thinking his eyes would be brown, but something about it feels true. Iron Man would have warm eyes, deep smile lines and long lashes.
“How so?” He finally asks and Steve shakes himself for those oddly specific thoughts.
“This whole last week, I don’t know, I just have this gut feeling that something is wrong.” Again that feels too simple, doesn’t capture the way the whole world feels tilted like Steve is stuck staring through a fun house mirror. “I wake up and my room is too quiet, I keep finding all these weird little things in my room. And I know they aren’t mine and I can’t remember how they got there, but they also feel like they belong somehow.”
“Like what?” Iron Man’s voice is soft, hesitant in a way Steve’s never heard from him. He feels spurred on by it, like maybe Iron Man has his own list of strange goings-on. If this is happening to more people it has to be something they can fix.
“There is a set of little screwdrivers and these reading glasses.” They were in along side the paperback, but Steve only noticed them this morning when he opened the drawer to see if it was still there. They are thin and silver, only large enough to cover half the eye. He turns in his chair to face Iron Man straight on and throws his arm out, hoping to convey just how rattled this all is making him. “Where on earth would I get reading glasses and why don’t I remember getting them? I wouldn’t ever need them.”
“Maybe someone else left them there?” Iron Man hedges, lifting his shoulders high and dropping them in an approximation of a shrug. The same strange hesitance is still in his voice and Steve feels less than reassured.
“I thought so too, but only you and Clint are in there all that regularly and I doubt either of you are using them.” He points out, arms still gesturing too wide and erratic. Talking about it all just makes everything more real, more insane.
“Fair enough.” Iron Man gives in and he seems to make some decision to relax into the chair. His posture goes from straight and tight to something as close to slouching as his suit can allow. Steve smiles at him, glad the air is losing some of its tension. He wants to ask about his latest mission for Stark, wants to make sure nothing went sideways on him. Something about it must have been difficult, Iron Man always seems a little worn out after a long Stark Industries mission.
“But, those aren’t even the weirdest things.” Steve says instead, remembering the apologetic way JARVIS told him the mission was classified. If Iron Man needs to talk about it, he will. They have built up a solid friendship over the last two years. He knows he can tell his Shellhead anything and knows Iron Man feels the same way.
“What, you got a bra in the couch cushions or something?” Iron Man asks and Steve snorts so hard he feels it all the way to the back of his throat.
“No of course not.” He insists, but can’t help the breathy laughs escaping him when Iron Man throws up is hands in mock surrender.
“What, maybe Clint wanted to use your room.” He insists and Steve lets out a fresh set of giggles. Leaning forward and clasping a hand on Iron Man’s shoulder to hold himself upright in the chair. Iron Man sounds positively gleeful at the turn, little static noises joining in with Steve’s snorts and chuckles. “It’s usually the cleanest!”
“Why on earth would he use my room?” Steve implores, managing to bring his face up in some attempt to seriously ask the question. Seeing the impassive mask along side the increasingly loud static prevents any real effort though. His side is starting to hurt, but his smile feels so nice. His other teammates make him happy nearly every day, but nothing can beat a good laugh with Iron Man. “Why on earth do you think I’d let him?”
“I don’t know! It was just a joke.” He answers, falling forward and slapping his thigh and then Steve’s back. There is water prickling at the corner of Steve’s eyes and he swipes at it while trying to gulp in enough breath to get back to the topic.
“Shellhead, this is serious.” He tries, but a little hiccuping thing pops out after and they both dissolve into giggles again. “Come on, come on! I think something is going on.”
“Sorry sorry!” Iron Man replies, back straightening. The static tapers off while Steve schools his features into a less manic grin. The smile doesn’t completely dissolve though and Iron Man seems more relaxed, his posture easy and friendly like Steve has come to know.
“Alright.” Iron Man says, gauntlet resting on Steve’s shoulder. The contact feels too good for words. “What is the weirdest thing?”
The question pulls him back a little and he turns to look at the far wall with a sigh. A good few minutes may help his anxiety, but the underlying issue is still there. Something is off with him and it may be nothing more than some strange bout of forgetfulness, but it is still worrying. It could be a sign of the serum failing in some way. He shakes that thought off and turns back to Iron Man.
“I found this box in my sock drawer.” Comes out without thought and he wonders why he started there instead of the encounter with Anna.
“Okay? Was it a magical box?” Iron Man teases, but Steve feels the weariness settling back on his shoulders and can’t manage more than an amused huff in response.
“Iron Man.” He looks at the face plate, knows his face must seem somber when the gauntlet slips off his shoulder and into Iron Man’s lap.
“Sorry, sorry. Do go on.” Iron man insists, tone mellowed down to match Steve’s.
He looks at the face plate for a long moment, takes a few measured breaths. His palms feel wet. “It was a ring box.” Steve finally lets out in one huff, brow going tight and worried. For a second the room is so completely and utterly silent. Something coils around his chest and he forces himself to look back into the eye slits of the suit. “With a ring in it.” He continues, rather pointlessly because Iron Man seems to perfectly understand the seriousness now.
The entire suit is motionless, not even the faint sound of mechanical whirling is breaking the silence. His face plate is focus so intently on Steve, he can practically feel them both holding their breath. “I’ve never seen it before, but I, I knew–”
Then Iron Man is standing, straight out of his chair in a movement so fast Steve briefly thinks he could use this level of agility in battle. Steve backs into his chair as Iron Man lurches forward, movements shaking and imprecise. Jumping up, Steve lifts his arms up to help steady him. The ring box is a far away thought. “Woah, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I uh. Malfunction. I need, I have to go.” Iron Man responds, his words jerking out of him in quick bursts. He sounds frightened, sounds exactly like the time he pulled Steve out from under a collapsed fifteen story building, brown eyes wide in worry. He can still see the wetness pooling in them.
“What?” Steve manages, but he feels shaken by the half memory and lets the armor slip past his fingers. Iron Man is across the room now and Steve can only stare as he stumbles and slams a hand into the elevator pad.
“Workshop. I need to, To– Mr. Stark needs to. I just have to go.” And then the doors are opening and he is stepping inside. They close and Iron Man doesn’t even look back.
“Wait, Shellhead.” Steve calls, eyes locked unseeing on the metalic doors.
It takes Steve another two days to open up about it to anyone else. The same oddities keep happening and Iron Man has yet to stop by and see him since their last conversation. He’s taken to running a different path, unable to see Anna’s shop window without going inside and torturing himself with the horrible juxtaposition of knowing and not remembering.
Natasha tells him to talk to Bruce about it because this forgetfulness shouldn’t be happening with the serum. She seems worried, but tries to put him at ease and lets him complain about how weird it all makes him feel. Before he leaves she tells him she will look into any causes herself. He doesn’t tell her all of it, does not go into detail about how strange Iron Man is acting. Still, even without all the information she has the best luck at pulling on the right strings.
Bruce encourages him to keep a log of everything he notices, but doesn’t seemed too worried about it, telling Steve even with the serum the human brain does weird things. Still, he takes several blood samples and runs some memory tests on him before letting him go back to his floor.
He doesn’t tell either of them about the ring, even though he looks at it every morning.
Four days after his last conversation with Iron Man, he walks into the communal kitchen and sees Tony Stark sitting over a tablet and coffee mug. It is odd to see him here in the middle of the day, usually Stark flows in and out of the area at times both too late and too early to be called morning or night. He looks exhausted, back curled over and gaze hazy on the glowing screen. There is no steam rising from the mug and Steve cranes up a bit to see it is nearly empty.
He moves fully into the kitchen, watching as the genius continues on without noticing him. The stillness of the man seems unnatural, like watching a wild animal performing in the circus. For all the issues he may have with him, he knows him to be the personification of energy itself. He is always moving, always talking, passing through one persona into the next and never stopping for a breath. It feels like he is stealing something by witnessing the calmness of him in the afternoon light.
Steve ticks on the coffee maker and still there is no reaction from the other occupant of the room. Part of him wants to say something, wants to get the guy to look up and react to his existence somehow. The other, well the other part is fixated. He can’t look away, can’t be bothered to even remember why he came here in the first place.
Aside from the stillness there is nothing new or particularly interesting about Starks appearance. He is in one of his usual suits, jacket tossed over the back of his chair and sleeves rolled to the elbows. The vest is still on, though unbuttoned and his tie is only loosened enough to allow his collar to splay open to the first button. He wears a watch on his left wrist, a silver piece with a large black face that likely lights up when he tilts his wrist in just the right way. Sunlight catches in his hair and Steve is struck by how light some of the strands are, a vibrant honey brown weaved in along the near black of the artful tousle. Even though his face is relaxed and tired, Steve can make out the marks of laugh lines around both of his eyes, can almost trace the worry lines on his forehead. His fingers itch to smooth down the deep furrow between his brows.
With a jerk Steve pulls himself out of his thoughts and turns to grab the freshly filled mug from under the coffee maker. The gesture feels strange after all the, well, ogling Steve just partook in. Still, it feels like a nice enough ice breaker and Steve’s wanted to get to know the man better for years now. They started on such wrong footing and even after moving the whole team into his Tower, he still kept his distance.
“Stark.” Steve says when he comes to stand next to the man. For all he seems to be absorbed in his reading, Stark does not startle at the interruption. Instead he simply looks up and locks there eyes together. They are the exact brown Steve pictured for Iron Man and so stunning he nearly spills the mug of coffee on himself.
“Hello?” Stark says, one eyebrow arching high as Steve thrusts the coffee out in front of him to avoid burning himself. They stare at each other dumbly for longer than could possibly be necessary, then Stark looks down at the cup and relieves Steve of holding it. Another pause, and then he looks back up and nods his thanks, face blatantly confused.
“Haven’t seen you around in the last few days.” Instead of explaining the fresh mug, Steve takes a seat at the chair across the table and wishes he’d at least gotten a cup of juice to fiddle with.
“Been busy.” Stark admits, still looking at Steve in bemusement. He eventually shakes his head and takes a sniff of the mug before bringing it to his lips and taking a generous swallow. Captivated, Steve watches his throat work through it and feels his own go completely dry.
He coughs and looks away, scanning the empty air behind Stark like it contains the answers to the universe. From the beginning, Steve thought Stark was an unfairly attractive man, but the level of reaction is something he honestly thought he moved past some time ago. Stark looks down at his reading again, seemingly content to let Steve be a disaster all by himself. The room seems somewhat warmer and certainly much more awkward, so Steve jumps to the first thing he can possibly think to start a conversation.
“How was the trip to Hong Kong?” Comes out of his mouth and both he and Stark look at each other in surprise at the outburst. Just a few moments ago Steve had been ready to ask where he’d been all of last week, but just before that question formed he remembered the answer. A few days before leaving, they were sat on the couch in the adjacent living room, sharing a bowl of popcorn and watching something in the long list of movies Steve needed to catch up on.
It is another one of those half formed memories, something hazy and slipping away even as Steve tries to recall the specifics. They’ve never sat and watched a movie together. Stark never even comes to the team movie nights, no matter how many times Steve tells him he is more than welcome. In fact, now that he focuses more on the images in his mind, Iron Man was the one to tell him he and Stark would be going to Hong Kong. Steve was eating the popcorn by himself.
While Steve casually freaks out across from him, Stark just shrugs and decides to accept Steve had some way of knowing about his comings and goings.
“It went well enough.” He says after another sip of his coffee, then leans forward to rest his face on his fist. “Got them to sign on without too much hassle.”
“That’s good to hear.” Steve replies with a smile and finds he really means it. He knows they’ve been a bit of a hold out on the global green energy Initiative Stark Industries is spearheading with the U.N. He knows how stressed Stark has been about it for the last months, it certainly seemed to be enough to bleed down into Iron Man. They both try to keep S.I. business separate from the Avengers, but Iron Man always ends up confiding in Steve when Stark gets super overworked and starts taking it out on him.
“How, uh, what have you been doing lately?” Stark asks. His voice is a little awkward, but his smile is soft and inviting. All of his attention is on Steve and despite the stiffness to his posture, the genuine interest makes Steve grin back.
“Just the usual.” He offers, but feels a desire to really share. “Training, write ups. I got called in to run a few classes at SHIELD. I always like seeing the new recruits. They have a promising group coming up right now. I think a few of them will be great to have helping in the field.” Stark relaxes more and more as Steve continues and nods along to every sentence. It feels comfortable, familiar in a way that it shouldn’t.
They never really got past their terrible introduction, only managing pleasantries and shop talk. Steve always tries to keep a cool head around him, thankful for the aid and resources he freely provides the team. Admittedly, he could have done a better job, but even with two years of living in the same building they simply never interact enough to build up much of a rapport. It may be time to really work on that. “It’s been pretty quiet otherwise, so I’ve even managed a bit of time for sketching.”
“Good.” Stark is looking at him with such unguarded happiness it makes Steve’s entire body warm. It also brings an under current of shame along with it, maybe Stark’s wanted to strike up a friendship this whole time. “Always nice when the villains decide to take a little vacation.”
“You could say that again.” Steve laughs and leans back in his chair. There is no reason to wallow in his own mistakes and brashness. This could be an easy turning point for them. It would certainly make working together easier. For all Stark insists he is a civilian, his brains have been an asset in more than a few battles. Besides, no one can design a suit as spectacular as Iron Man without knowing the intricacies of all their fights. If they can let their past animosity be water under the bridge, it could be worthwhile to start debriefing him in person instead of trusting him to read any relevant reports on his own.
“You try those new prisma colors yet?” Stark cuts in and Steve shakes himself out of his thoughts. He should just focus on having a nice conversation, instead of planning the tactical advantages of their possible friendship.
“Oh, actually yes.” Steve answers, ready to start talking about the wonderful set of pencils Iron Man bought him a couple weeks back. Yet, why would Stark know to ask about them anyways? “Did, did Iron Man tell you about those?”
“Um, yes.” Stark answers, eyes jumping from Steve to scan the room. He coughs and there is a tightness to his posture again. “Yes, he talks about you a lot.”
“Oh, hope he doesn’t say anything bad.” Steve replies with a light chuckle, tilting his head to catch Stark’s eyes again. It doesn’t bother him that they talk about him and he wants to reassure Stark that he takes no offense by it. If anything the idea that they would discuss something as simple as his drawing supplies makes him unreasonably happy.
“All good things I promise.” Stark replies immediately, waving his hands in front of him in reassurance. He seems to catch the silliness of the gesture and lets them drop back to the table with a chuckle. Smoothing one hand through his hair and grabbing his mug for another sip, he continues, “I doubt there would be anything bad to tell.”
“Well you obviously haven’t smelt me after a long training session.” Steve shoots back, a wry smile on his lips. Instead of laughing or responding in any way Steve expects, Stark inhales his coffee with a sharp breath. He immediately starts coughing, cheeks flushing red from the strain. Jumping up, Steve hurries around the table to pat and rub soothing circles into Stark’s back. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, fine.” Stark manages between a few more coughs, rubbing his chest and leaning a bit into Steve’s hand. “Just, down the wrong tube.”
Steve nods at that and lets his hand drop with unreasonable reluctance before moving back over to the fridge. He pulls two glasses from the cabinet, filling one with water for Stark and another with the juice he came in for in the first place.
“Shouldn't try to breathe the coffee.” Steve remarks once he is back in his seat, watching Stark take small sips of the water between a couple more coughs. “If you need it that bad at least use an I.V.”
“Har har, chuckles.” He snarks back, but there is a curl to the side of his mouth and Steve just laughs. “I can drink it just fine.”
“That last stunt says otherwise.” Steve points out, hand itching to smooth back the large clump of hair now hanging over the other man’s forehead.
“Hush, you.” Luckily, he pushes said strands back before Steve can make an idiot of himself. His little smirk has grown into a full smile now and Steve would hate to ruin the comfortable atmosphere.
“It’s okay. We all have our faults.” Steve continues, eager to get a fuller laugh. He just knows it will be a beautiful sound. “You can’t be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist and a good coffee drinker too. It would be unfair.”
“Oh says Mr. Perfect Rainbows and Sunshine.” Stark snarks and Steve beams. Stark is letting out an array of little giggles and breathy chuckles and Steve wants to bask in it.
“I am no such thing.” He insists, grinning and shaking his head. That gets him a full bark and it warms the room more than all the sunlight from the windows behind him.
“Name a single thing you are bad at?” Stark demands, leaning forward to poke Steve in the chest. It sends a pleasant zing straight down to his toes and he has to physically restrain himself from reaching out to grasp Stark’s hand. It feels wrong not to, but the idea of just leaning forward is so ludicrous Steve loses a bit of his easy mirth.
“There are plenty of things I’m bad at. Just two weeks ago you had to spend a full twenty minutes explaining Instagram to me.” Steve points out, and lets out a deep sigh. He keeps his smile in place and luckily Stark seems caught up enough in their banter not to notice the subtle shift in his mood.
“Not knowing something isn’t the same as being bad at it.” Stark reassures him, sentiment serious for all the teasing in his tone. It sombers Steve’s mood even more. He can tell Stark really believes it and it stirs up something in his chest. Suddenly he is that small skinny kid, looking up at Peggy and finally feeling like someone other than Bucky can see him. Someone is looking and doesn’t find him lacking. “You are practically an expert now. Anything you try, you’re good at by the end of the day.”
“That’s not true.” He feels himself reply, but he is more focused on looking at Stark. Something in his chest feels both too tight and gapingly empty. He feels rotten for not seeing the kindness in those eyes before, feels cheated out of years of good friendship simply because he made assumptions. Yet, it seems right that he would be punished. For years he wanted people to actually get to know him, for people to stop deciding his limitations and abilities from one glance. Then the second he could repay the favor to someone else he made the same mistakes. No one with such a genuine smile could be the selfish man Steve always told himself Stark had to be.
“I don’t see you naming anything that contradicts me.” Stark says and Steve shakes his head to get out of such maudlin thoughts. He can make up for it now, he can be the cause of that happy grin instead of someone believing it only comes with ulterior motives. He can open up himself and be genuine in a way he’s been avoiding since that first day.
With that in mind he replies, “talking.”
“What?” Stark pulls back and looks at him like he suddenly sprouted a second head. “Are you having a stroke!” He demands and starts to shake his head like Steve’s suggestion is the most ridiculous thing ever spoken. “Cap, all you do is talk. You are practically a walking speech writer.”
For reasons unknown, that makes a rush of heat flood Steve’s face and he looks down at the table to hide what is sure to be an impressive flush. “I mean, like talking one on one.” He tries and simply has to rub a hand over the back of his neck. Chancing a glance back up at Stark he sees the man look at him with something like understanding. It seems Stark actually knows exactly what he means, but he still feels himself continue. “With people, strangers. Getting to know people and, well.” His flush deepens, he can feel the rush of blood spreading down his chest and over his nose. He flails a hand out to gesture at Stark’s chest. “I never had any luck like you do.”
When he brings himself to meet the other man’s eyes again, the same understanding smile is still in place but his eyes are brighter than before. He looks good happy, Steve thinks and lets a smile pull across his own face.
“You are doing just fine right now.” Stark reassures, eyes flicking down and back up to glance at Steve from under his lashes. It is blatantly flirtatious, but in a softer way than Steve has ever seen from the man.
“Well, this is–” Steve starts, but he can’t bring himself to say this situation isn’t what he was referring to. To be honest, Steve wouldn’t mind if this tentative step into friendship lead somewhere more romantic.
It is startling to realize, but he really means it. Stark is a beautiful man, someone Steve would have admired from a distance in a previous life. Beyond that though, he is fascinating. He can push Steve to a level of frustration that almost frightens him at times, but he can also make him smile faster than anyone but Iron Man. In the span of their thirty minute conversation, he’s managed to makes Steve completely forget about the strange problems of the last few days.
People base romantic entanglements on less and for all Steve usually likes to befriend someone first, he is not above going into that sort of thing with a hope for more. If Stark is interested, well, he would definitely not complain.
“You’re different.” Steve finally finishes with, taking a long swallow of his juice to keep from expanding on that sentiment. It seems like an especially good decision when he realizes Stark is looking at him with wide and outrageously hopeful eyes. It makes him both want to run from the room and open his mouth to say something profound, something worthy of that gaze. Of course, because he really wasn’t kidding when he told Stark he is terrible at talking to people, he decides to ruin the mood instead. “Besides, I remember mucking it up well enough at first.”
Stark blinks and Steve is three seconds from punching himself in the face and then running away when Stark laughs. It is loud and full and makes his eyes crinkle beautifully. Steve is captivated, feels himself laughing along without really meaning to. He knew a real laugh from Stark would be beautiful, but this feels more like a punch to the gut. It is stunning.
“That was entirely mutual.” Stark says it like that is all the discussion the incident deserves, like no apologies are necessary.
“Still.” Steve can’t help but reply. Even if they can fall into this as easily as they seem to be doing right now, he knows he’ll want to really apologize for it at some point. He said some terrible things, picked a fight with the first person to push his buttons and no matter how much of a role Loki played, he still regrets it.
“Nah, my point stands. You’re perfect.” The statement is said casually, with a wave of the hand to push away the sentiment before it can stick. Steve feels charmed all the same.
“Whatever, Stark.” He grins back at the man, unbelievably glad he decided to sit down for a chat.
“Tony, please.” Stark replies without pause, smile so bright and beautiful.
“Tony.” The name feels perfect on his tongue. He wants to say it a hundred times.
He only got to talk with Tony for another few minutes before Clint came in for breakfast, followed closely by Bruce and Thor. The asgardian only stayed in the tower on rare occasions, so catching up with him ended up taking most of Steve’s attention. Before he realized, Tony had left the room without a goodbye. Steve decided not to take it to heart, well use to Tony removing himself from team moments. Instead, he promised to make the genius feel more welcome among them. Even if their little step into flirting leads nowhere, it would be good for everyone to see the same things in Tony he is starting to.
As all best laid plans go though, a new villain drops by two days later to mess everything up. Steve sees very little of both Tony and Iron Man, only managing a small chat with the former as they crossed paths in the elevator. Iron Man finally shows up for a sparring session, but that is the only time he sees the metal man before the Avengers alarm startles him out of sketching alone on his floor.
He is uniformed and on the common balcony just as Iron Man blasts up from the workshop floors to meet him. The sounds of the Quinjet starting lets them know the others will be following close behind, so they waste no time in assuming their usual flight position and taking off to meet the latest threat.
It seems simple enough at first, just a single guy in an outrageously bright blue pin-striped suit surrounded by a couple dozen slimy slug looking creatures. However, after the first few tentative hits, it becomes apparent that the creatures grow larger with each absorbed shock. Iron Man’s repulsors and Thor’s lightning cut through without causing swelling, but the masses quickly mold back together.
Hawkeye tries a couple exploding arrows, but after watching four of them sink into the gooey bodies as they expand around the delayed rattle of the explosion, he joins Widow in civilian rescue. Steve stays close to Iron Man, using his shield to magnify his repulsors. They manage two takedowns in a row with this method alongside well timed blasts of lightning from Thor just before the mounds can seal themself back up. Bruce is assisting shield on the perimeter as it is clear Hulk’s skill set might not be appreciated for this fight.
The man is laughing maniacally, spouting nonsense about his loyal slugs. Steve is too busy avoiding the largest ones and trying to assist Thor and Iron Man to really pay it much mind. It takes some time, and the largest monsters are certainly getting in a good amount of building destruction as the team struggles to cut them through before they heal. The road is filling with a pungent tan slime for each eliminated slug, and moving is getting a little difficult. Still, they keep pushing forward and soon there are only two slugs left.
That, of course, is when the man reveals his own ability to expand at will and swells up like a disturbing animal balloon. It happens too quickly and Steve can do nothing but watch as Pinstripe’s now five times larger fist collide with Iron Man mid air. The armor is sent flying into the nearest building with such a resounding thud, Steve’s ears ring for a few seconds. He is rushing after his friend before he can even think about it.
Somewhere in the distance he hears Hulk roar as a resounding clap of thunder shakes the entire block. None of it matters though, because Iron Man is down and seems to have slammed straight through one building and most of the way through another. Steve scales the windows, swinging from one ledge to another in rapid succession and runs headlong through the hole left by Iron Man’s body. He picks up speed and jumps through one shattered window and into the next building.
Grunting can be heard from the far corner and Steve swivels to follow it, knocking over a desk chair and potted plant on his way. The suit is crumpled over, resting against a rather large dent in the wall and Steve can see the faceplate is cracked and one of the gauntlets is laying next to it. A tan hand waves out, either to draw Steve over or wave him off since Iron Man’s identity is at risk. Steve decides to go with the former and rushes closer.
“Shellhead?” He implores and drops down to his knees next to the hunched over man. His face is turned away and his breathing is fast and shallow. There is nothing that could stop Steve from reaching out and grabbing the metal shoulders of the suit. Turning him is easy, takes just a little shifting and no thought at all. There is blood dripping from his forehead and his brown eyes are dazed, blinking rapidly and unfocused. Steve presses a hand to his cheek and draws him in closer. Tony looks so fragile like this and Steve hates when the suit isn’t enough to protect him. He may be a fighter but he is so very human.
“Steve?” Tony coughs out, luckily with no more blood than what is already dripping from the cut on his lip. Steve meets his now focused eyes and everything stops. Tony is Iron Man. Tony Stark is Iron Man and Steve knew this already, but he really really didn’t.
“Stark?” His voice cracks at the end and he can feel his breathing speed up. He knows this is new information, he knows for a fact he never even suspected Iron Man could have been this man. Yet, this is not the first time Steve has seen his face under a cracked face plate, it is not the first time he thought of them as one in the same.
“Surprise?” Tony asks with a chuckle, then grunts and hunches forward into a coughing fit. Without thinking, Steve anchors him and starts running his hands down the side of the chest plate. There are catches there, exactly where he knew they would be and it feels like the ring all over again. His fingers know exactly how to press them. Tony never even told him these catches existed.
“You’ve been, you’re…” Steve hears someone say, too focused on pulling the chest plate off to realize the voice is his own. When it falls off, Tony heaves in greatful breaths, holding his non-gauntleted hand against his chest. Steve presses his own over it, feels a need to weave their fingers together, but instead pulls it off to feel at the ribs himself. Tony hisses at the pressure, but Steve can tell they are just bruised, no cracks or breaks. It should be a relief, but Steve feels fractured. He has done this for Tony so many times, he knows the exact span of each rib, he sees the arc reactor embedded in his chest and can’t muster any surprise.
“I’m sorry. It was just easier this way.” Tony is telling him, but Steve honestly cannot figure out what he is talking about. Who did he buy those gloves from Anna’s shop for? Why does he have reading glasses in his night stand drawer?
“You didn’t tell me.” Steve replies and for all it comes out a statement, he means it as a question. Tony never told him, he knows that with perfect certainty. There are no hazy memories to contradict it either. Still, he knew somehow, knew in a way that went beyond subconsciously putting together clues. For all those clues seem blatantly obvious now, he never noticed them before.
“Look, Cap.” Tony starts, and his hand comes up to cup Steve’s cheek. It burns and feel so sweetly perfect Steve could live in this position forever. Using the hand to guide his face up, Tony forces him to lock their gazes. He looks so wrecked, eyes brimming over and face tight in pleading sorrow. It makes Steve angry, at what he cannot be sure. “I wanted to, I did. I just–”
“You’re my best friend, Shellhead!” Steve cuts him off and pulls back to stand and start pacing. His skin feels too tight, he feels too full of half memories and unreality. Nothing is making sense and every bit of it centers around this, every bit of his life comes back to Tony somehow and he wants that, he wants it so bad. It makes no sense, he knows Tony never told him. Knows Iron Man never thought to share something this important with his closest friend. “How could you keep this from me? How could you act like–”
“I had to, I couldn’t...” Tony is staggering to his feet now, wobbling and leaning heavily into the dented wall. He reaches a hand out for Steve and Steve takes it without thinking, marveling at the points where the bear tips of his fingers hit Tony’s knuckles. The thickness of them is so familiar and Steve drops the hand just as suddenly as he took it.
He turns around and sees a figure making its way in through the shattered window. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” He whispers, not really needing Tony to hear it because he knows the intensity of his disbelief cannot be understood. He needs to see Bruce, needs him to look at his blood and say there is something wrong, tell him what on earth is going on.
“Look I’m sorry, really I am. It–” Tony starts, but Natasha is upon them and she doesn’t look surprised. Steve can’t take it, can’t look at her or Tony or that hole in the window anymore.
He leaves without hearing either of their calls for him. The battle seems to be over, but he can focus on the clean up. He can focus on what he understands and make sense of Tony later. Much later if he can help it.
The clean up takes hours and even though a handful of SHIELD agents tell him they really can handle it on their own, Steve stays through all of it. Natasha must take care of Iron Man, because no one but the other Avengers seem to know anything about the reveal and Steve does not see him in any of the med vehicles. It itches at the back of his head, but the horrid stench of the now blue tinted tan slime provides enough distraction to prevent more than that.
When they finish and Maria Hill herself tells Steve to get his ass back to the tower, however, the thoughts are too numerous to count. He wants to go find Tony and make sure he is alright. He wants to find Natasha, demand she tell him how long she knew and to list every person privy to the knowledge. He wants to scream because as close as he and Iron Man were, the intensity of his anger makes no sense.
There were times, only a couple, where Iron Man hinted at wanting to tell Steve. It always happened late at night, always with them sat in those black cushioned chairs and after hours of light hearted conversation. Each time Steve would tell him not to say it, that knowing wouldn’t change anything. He could tell Iron Man didn’t really want to say anything, could tell it came out of guilt and shame. It ate at the other man, Steve could always see that, but not for any reason that made Steve want the confession.
He always thought when Iron Man really wanted to tell him, he would know. When it wasn’t just because he felt bad for not trusting Steve with something so protected, he would listen and keep the secret with more care than he did anything else. Maybe it came down to that, to being cheated of the gift this knowledge should have been.
Even as he thinks it though, he knows it isn’t the core of the issue. Sure it seems wrong to have found it out by accident, to have stolen the confession without consent. Yet, there is more, something too shivering to be rage, something hurt and unsure.
Then he adds on all the weird games his mind’s been playing on him the last few weeks and it all tumbles into a horrible twisting mess. There are too many things to process, too many uncertainties. He needs to pick something he can work on, something to focus on before he crumbles under the weight of it all. It feels too much like waking up to an unfamiliar future, too much like being completely alone and haunted by things recent in his mind but really long past.
So, he goes home. He takes a long hot shower and changes into a comfortable pair of jeans, ignoring that his favorite pair is still missing, and pulls on a tattered green hoodie. It takes drinking two full glasses of tap water to work up the courage to ask JARVIS where he can find Tony.
The A.I. immediately responds and directs Steve to the penthouse floor. The quickness startles him, but Steve just goes to the elevator and rides up without comment. When they open, he stays inside for a moment just staring out at the open living room before him. The room itself is nothing new, they’ve all been up here for a handful of dinners and little gatherings Stark put on for them. No, the thing fixing him in place is the blanket tossed over the back of the long grey sectional. It’s his missing one. He remembers pulling it over Tony’s shoulders when he fell asleep watching Star Wars. This is too much, he picked the wrong thing to focus on and he needs to leave.
Before he can even move to press the keypad there is a clatter followed closely by cursing from somewhere in the penthouse. It startles him enough to get him out of the elevator and the doors rush closed seconds after he steps off. If he weren’t so focused on finding the source of that noise, he would spare a minute to be annoyed with JARVIS for that.
“Tony?” Steve calls, crossing the living space and making his way into a wide hallway with four doors. One is cracked open and he can make out the rustle of blankets and clacking metal on wood. He considers turning to run again, because what can he even say at this point? He is still angry, but more than anything he just feels hopelessly confused. He wants to see Tony, he wants Tony to make it alright, he just wants to be in the same room as him. There is the sound of drawers slamming closed and then more intense rustling before it all stops.
“Steve?” Tony finally responds, sounding distressingly out of breath, but the plea in it is unmistakable. There really was no way Steve would do anything other than reach out for that door knob, nowhere else he was going to go than this bedroom.
Tony is sat up, picking at the hem of his silk cream comforter. The room is expansive, but not empty. There are two massive pale wood dressers along one wall. Both have a set of glass catchall plates, the red one contains a silver watch, the money clip Steve usually sees Tony pull out and a handful of loose change. The other one is blue and empty. There are a few framed photos of the team on that dresser, but the one with red only has a photo of Tony and Rhodey looking shockingly young and a frame that lays face down.
A plush white rug spans most of the otherwise marble floor and Steve can make out a purple paint stain on one corner. He follows the corner up to see a collapsed dark wood easel and can’t help but stare at it. It is something he nearly bought himself a few months back and he can’t help but shoot Tony a wide eyed look. He never would have took Tony for an artist, but maybe he uses it as a drafting surface for his blueprints. For his part, Tony refuses to make eye contact and Steve just steps further into the room.
The feeling gets more intense as he takes in his surroundings, but the hazy memories are almost familiar at this point. He may never have stepped foot in this room, but he can guarantee there is a metal mint tray in Tony’s bedside drawer filled with his anxiety medication. It has the american flag on it and Steve gave it to him as a joke nearly eight months ago. He remembers painting the pair of Brooklyn city scapes behind the headboard of Tony’s bed, but never once has he seen them. For a moment, just a second, he thinks his missing jeans may be in the middle drawer of that second dresser.
“Steve?” Tony’s voice breaks the atmosphere and suddenly Steve realizes he’s walked all the way to the side of the bed without realizing. They are uncomfortably close, Tony’s shoulder could press right into his stomach if the man shifted right even the smallest amount. Tony sleeps on the side Steve keeps finding empty when he wakes up.
Stepping back, Steve shoves his hand deep into his pockets. He picked Tony to focus on, he picked talking to Iron Man and all the strange memories will have to wait. Tony shifts and finally meets his eyes, the expression is only barely better than earlier that afternoon. His face should never look that destroyed.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asks on a sigh and moves to sit just past Tony’s feet. The only thing he knows is this is his shellhead, his best friend. There have been so many battles, so many injuries that he never got to sit at his bedside for. It’s time to make up for that.
Tony watches as he sits, face screwed up and hands clasping the blanket too tight. “Well, nothing is broken.” He starts and Steve smiles before reaching out a hand on instinct. Tony flinches, but when Steve goes to set it back in his lap he snatches it up and presses it between both of his own. For a moment they both just look at the contact, but when Tony looks up they both smile.
Tony lets out a sigh like it was the only thing keeping his body upright and takes one hand away to begin gesturing wildly with it. “And can I just say the level of shock I got for that was really uncalled for, do these people think my suit is just a shell that I rattle around in? Like, come on people, of course I built in shock absorbers. Why on earth would I spend so much time in it if it wasn’t actually going to protect me from shit like that? It is seriously insulting, I can’t-”
“I’m glad to see you are feeling alright, then.” Steve cuts off and he can’t help but laugh. This really is Iron Man. All this time, all those conversations, it’s been those expressions playing behind the face plate. It is gorgeous. Tony’s face is so ubsurdly expressive, like it’s trying to make up for all the time Steve spent just imagining it.
“Well, you know...” Tony huffs out, but the little curl at the corner is coming to be one of Steve’s favorite things. He pats his chest and arches an eyebrow, “can’t keep Iron Man down.”
Steve’s smile falters at that and he looks down at their joined hands. He is still angry, still hurt and surprised and confused, but more than anything he is happy. He is happy to be able to sit here like this, to touch and be touched, to finally know how much his best friend smirks.
“I’m sorry for leaving you there Tony.” Steve admits softly. His fingers clench and he has to remind himself that these hands are human, not metal. He can feel his face hardening, feel his jaw clench.
“No, it’s fine. I get it.” Tony replies after a pause. His voice is light, choppy. When Steve looks up, Tony is staring at his fingernails and his face is so completely blank the face plate might as well still be on. “Not exactly what you were expecting, ” he continues with a vague gesture to himself and snaps his eyes up. They are cold, hardening as he lifts his chin and squares his shoulders. It makes Steve coil, makes some of his own shame and guilt abate. Then Tony’s hand spasms in his and Steve’s eyes snap down to them. There is the tiniest tremor there, the tips jerking up and down like Tony wants to let go and start tapping them but wants to hold on tighter too.
He is nervous and Steve can’t believe he couldn’t hear it in his voice before. For years he had only the modulated tones to go on, but that never stopped him from coming to understand his Shellhead nearly as well as he understood himself. Tony is nervous, is scared and trying to act like he is completely in control.
“I’m prepared to leave the team.” Tony says suddenly and Steve snaps up to stare in shock. “Rhodey may be the militaries little yappy chihuahua, but he’s good for lending air support when you need it.”
“What?” Steve chokes out.
“I mean, War Machine isn’t as nice as Iron Man certainly, but I can add a few bells and whistles, you guys wouldn’t even notice.” Tony keeps going, steamrolling on like Steve never made a sound, like they aren’t right this moment holding hands. His eyes are still hard, still focused on Steve’s face but the little spasms at the corners give him away.
Steve lets out a long breath and turns to face him fully, lifting one knee onto the bed beside him. He pulls Tony’s free hand out of the air with his own and presses it down into Tony’s lap.
“Why on earth would you leave the team?” He asks gently, keeping eye contact even when Tony tries to glance away.
“Well, I mean.” Tony begins, but all the wind is falling out of his sails. He shakes his head and bites his lip hard enough for the skin to go white under his teeth. “Listen, I’m not saying it would be forever, but I get that you won’t be able to trust me for a while.”
“Tony, you are not leaving the team.” Steve insists, clenching both hands before releasing them. He runs them over his own face and looks around the room for some sort of directions. His anger feels like some far away thing, just the puff of smoke left after pouring water on hot coals. They’re gonna fight about this at some point, hell he and Tony can fight about the likelihood of rain most days, they are certainly going to fight about this at some point. Now, though, now all Steve can see is the defiance in Tony’s eyes, the wall going up to protect himself from Steve’s rejection.
“Listen, Cap. It’s fine. I know I lied to you.” Tony spits out, making Steve turn back to him. He’s looking at his empty hands like they’re covered in blood. “I get it. I couldn’t tell you, but that does not make it okay. I’m not hurt, I won’t put up a fight?”
“Tony, shut up.” Steve all but yells at him. He is up on his feet now, scratching his nails against his scalp and drawling in a deep steadying breath. He can’t forgive him tonight, but he’ll let it go soon. This isn’t a grudge worth holding and more of it comes from his own strange problems than not being told. It wouldn’t be fair to let Tony hurt because Steve can’t figure out his own issues.
“I’m just–” Tony starts when Steve is silent for too long, but the noise pulls him into action. In two short steps he is hovering over him. In one quick movement he has Tony’s face cupped in both his hands. He brings them in close, makes their eyes focus and let’s his frustration scrunch up his face. Eyes wide, Tony just stares and remains silent as Steve takes a moment to gather his thoughts.
“I’m not mad that you didn’t tell me. Well, I am, but that isn’t the point.” Steve starts, huffing out a breath but not dropping his hands, not even letting them twitch. There is no reason to lie, the truth will get his point across more anyways. “I told you knowing it wouldn’t change anything, Shellhead. I trust you.”
Tony’s eyes fill with water, but he blinks it away before anything can come of it. His eyes are still wide, mouth parting silently and they just stare at each other for a long moment. It stills something in Steve’s skin, soothes away the nervous buzzing he felt since stepping foot into this room.
“Steve.” Tony finally breaks in, voice nothing more than a breath into the space between them. He can’t say exactly why, but it makes his hands fall away, makes him take a step back. The tension is too much and suddenly all he can feel is exhaustion. The battle may not have been all that mentally exciting, but it still took its toll and that speaks nothing of the hours spend scooping buckets of disgusting sludge from the streets of Manhattan.
“I’m only mad at myself for not seeing it.” He tries for a chuckle, but it comes out too short and soft to really get the message across. Tony is still looking at him though and his smile pulls up just a bit. Tension slowly seeps out of Steve and he smiles back, kind and soft. “You’re too good a man to let someone else do the heavy lifting for you, Stark.”
“You barely know me.” Tony points out, but his smile is brighter now. Steve can see the deep hue of purple under his eyes as they stretch up into his crow’s feet. Certainly, he new Tony was tired the moment he entered but the reality seems to be hitting him just now. He steps further away.
“Of course I know you.” He admits on a shrug. It is true, true in more ways than Tony could understand, but the idea doesn't make him feel as uneasy as all the other unanswered questions. If the strange new belongings and missing clothing come with extra knowledge on Tony, well it can’t be all bad. “You’re my best friend.”
Tony seems caught for a minute by that, poised between two conflicting emotions. Happiness wins in the end though and his smile may be shaky, but it feels like the single best thing Steve’s ever done.
“Get some rest.” He tells him, letting himself pat his shoulder once before turning to the door. He decides not to look back, but calls out before entering the hallway, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Weeks pass and Steve is no closer to an answer for his problem. The oddities are starting to just feel like a part of his normal life, the little hazy memories no longer fill him with abject dread. It still makes him uneasy and he spends several hours each week going through tests with Bruce. Natasha is yet to find anything that could narrow down their searching, but she continues to look between her own missions and Avengers business. Clint teases him about going senile and Tony keeps looking at him with such intense emotion Steve always ends up looking away first.
Tony is becoming a bit of a problem in Steve’s life even without the unreal recollections. By problem, Steve of course means the best damn part of it, but the classification feels completely justified. They are spending more and more time together, more than they ever did when Tony was restricted to in his armor. Almost everyday Steve finds himself walking down to the workshop with a box of pizza or little white containers of chinese food. He spends hours down there, both sketching while Tony works and watching movies together on a tattered couch shoved in the far corner.
It started slowly, the morning after their conversation they’d both only managed to stay in the same room for about ten minutes. Still, making coffee for Tony and watching him smile around the mug filled him with so much warmth he started making a batch on the communal floor everyday. Those first few days consisted mostly of not talking about the elephant in the room and simultaneously avoiding and seaking each other out. It probably would have kept going like that for weeks if not for Clint.
Avengers’ movie nights where anything but scheduled at first and more like something that just started happening once or twice monthly without any conscious decision. Now though, every third Tuesday (or Wednesday if super villains decided they needed to shit on that particular parade), they all congregated at 7 o’clock sharp. Always in lounge wear and ready to spend the first twenty minutes arguing for their bid. They’d considered setting up some type of schedule, but half the fun came from pleading for votes. It brought them all together more than any amount of joint training ever could and was certainly something everyone looked forward to.
So, when it rolled along just five days post reveal, it took no time for them to notice the missing person. Steve considered going and finding Tony, but that morning Steve had left their conversation mid sentence because he couldn’t reconcile the sound of laughter with the memory of static. It seemed better to just give them both their space and try to get back to the old friendship some other day, let alone ever addressing the little thing they’d tried sparking before the secret came out.
Clint, however, seemed to have absolutely no reservations. He’d gotten up without a word to anyone else and started yelling for Stark to get his ass to the party before even getting into the elevator. Three minutes later they both entered the room, Tony disheveled and irritated, Clint all smiles. Without so much as an explanation, Clint tossed Tony into the seat next to Steve, took his own on the floor in front of Natasha and immediately started campaigning for Wreck it Ralph.
No one responded to Tony’s grumbling, but Steve felt himself relax into it and didn’t bother mentioning his own movie choice. They didn’t say hello, but not twenty minutes into the movie Tony seemed unable to contain himself anymore and started muttering. It was a habit they’d gotten into months ago, Iron Man would whisper little jokes to Steve and Steve would try his hardest not to disrupt the movie with his laughter. Sometimes Steve would joke back, sometimes he would just let the easy company wash over him, but Tony always kept the words coming.
It felt so wonderfully normal, so completely like it should. The memories of this were solid, for all some of them had the hazy outline of Tony instead of the armor. They always did this, even in Steve’s fake memories. Iron Man or Tony, Steve always ended up laughing with him.
After that it all starts to click into place. It doesn’t matter. Steve knows the truth now sure, but the bond is old and worn in. The only thing that needs to change is that Steve can see Iron Man as often as he wants to now. He can go track down Tony when he’d usually been told Iron Man is off location.
He may abuse that ability abit. Everytime he knocks on the workshop door though, Tony grins at him like nothing on earth will ever be better than leftover pasta and Steve. It’s the happiest he’s been in a long time. Iron Man may have been his best friend, but they never got to see each other like this; never got to spend more days together than apart and it kept them both at a distance.
He can tell Tony has been lonely too, has been longing for this easy togetherness as much as Steve and it spurs him on. Steve makes him coffee in the morning and lunch whenever they both are in the Tower. He sits down in the workshop until they get hungry enough to order in or go see if Bruce will cook everyone a nice dinner. After a battle, he stays with Tony and makes sure nothing cut him too deep or hit him too hard. When things inevitably do, he sits by his bed or with him on the couch and brings him meals around the clock. The team has taken to teasing him relentlessly, but he can’t care. Being with Tony makes sense, it makes all his forgetfulness seem unimportant, it makes him outrageously happy.
Steve looks up from his sketch to check the lines of Tony’s nose in profile only to find Tony staring straight at him. It freezes him in place and he lets the sketchbook and pencil slide down into his lap.
“Hey, Steve?” Tony says, licking at his bottom lip before turning his eyes away and rubbing an oil stained hand up against the grain of his scalp. It makes Steve long to do the same, but he presses his hands into the spine of his sketchbook instead.
“Yeah?” He calls when it looks like Tony will continue to stare at the workbench for the rest of the day if he doesn’t say something.
Without looking up, Tony responds, “can I, well, I wanted to ask you something?” He is all but scuffing his toe into the floor and Steve chuckles a bit at the nervous gesture. Something about it makes him feel more at ease.
“What is it, Shellhead?”
“Do you think, if you’re free I mean...” Tony starts, still in that same nervous tone. Then he shifts and takes in a deep breath. Steve always marvels this ability to shift from one tone to another so seamlessly. It is something he saw hints of with Iron Man, but the full power Tony has over his mannerisms can be staggering at times. It feels like a privilege to ever see him unguarded. His eyes are back on Steve and his smile is all friendly nonchalance. “Do you want to go for dinner tonight?”
“Sure. What are you thinking?” Steve immediately answers. He feels excited, pleased by the turn of events. He’s always wanted to actually go out for a meal together, but Iron Man couldn’t really partake in those sorts of things so he never asked. It’s something they can actually do now though, it makes him feel overfull.
“Oh, really?” Tony is wide eyed, face bright and so hopeful Steve can’t help but beam back at him. This only brings more light to the genius’ face and he laughs before adding, “awesome. I was thinking we could go to this little Italian place a few blocks down.”
“I’d be happy to.” Steve agrees with a nod and can’t even bother to feel anything but warm when he realizes it has to be the one he avoids running past. “I’ve ran past a few times. Thought it looked pretty good.”
“Oh, you’ve seen it before?” Tony asks, but he is already turning back to the work he’d been so focused on earlier. His smile is firmly in place though, so Steve doesn’t bother to feel hurt by the sudden departure from their conversation.
“Yeah, I think I saw someone eating the Carbonara, I’ve been wanting to try it ever since. I bet I’d love it.” Steve tells him, picking his sketchbook back up. If Tony wants to get back to work, he can do the same.
“Yeah.” Tony says and something about his tone pulls Steve back up from the pad. He is still looking at the screen, but there's no focus in his eyes. It may as well be a window for all he is looking straight through it. “It’s really good, you’ll love it.” He continues, but his voice wavers on the last few words and something wet is catching at the edges of it.
“Are you alright?” Steve starts to slide off the couch as he asks, ready to go comfort his friend. Before he can so much as slide the pad out of his lap though, Tony is spinning in his chair and beaming so largely at him it nearly knocks Steve off the couch anyways.
“Yeah, of course. Just thinking. I’ve got a bit to finish up over here, but I can be ready around 7, sound good?” He says quickly, spinning once in his chair and winking at Steve before going back to the screen. The jumps from one tone to another may be fascinating, but sometimes they really leave Steve spinning.
“Sure.” Steve manages, blinking a few times and looking away from Tony’s profile only to find it layed out on his sketch pad. “You okay with me staying down here to finish my sketch?”
“You’re always welcome.” Tony responds and this time his distraction is clearly coming from the blue print instead of whatever sparked it moments ago. Steve shakes his head and goes back to work.
It isn’t until he is washing the graphite off his fingers in his personal bathroom that he realizes what actually happened. They are going on a date. Steve agreed to a date with Tony, there is no way to take the nervous start to the conversation in any other way. And when Steve agreed so quickly the joy on Tony’s face must mean he took it as acceptance to finally try for that something more.
Steve grips the bathroom sink and takes three steadying breaths. He is going on a date with Tony. He really, really wants to be going on a date with Tony. God, it is happening.
It takes a second, but Steve realizes he is laughing, giggling more like, at the thought. He looks up at himself in the mirror and for a second he can’t recognize the face. It’s the youngest he’s looked in years, smile bright and cheeks flushed pink with the excitement. It makes him laugh harder and he can’t actually understand how happy he feels.
It would surprise absolutely no one if he admitted to thinking about this a lot the past few weeks. Hell, he knows they’ve been flirting pretty steadily since that movie night and it’s only gotten worse the more time Steve spends with him. He wants this sure, but as with everything else the intensity is all out of proportion. This desire feels well worn, he isn’t nervous, just happy.
Maybe it’s just because this is more than Tony he’s thinking about, it’s his Shellhead. It’s the man that spent nights comforting him when he couldn’t sleep. It’s the friend that spent weeks watching old movies with him and writing lists of songs he needed to listen to. Tony’s been there for him like no one else in this new world, he helped him, gave him an ear and a shoulder. They’ve fought together and against each other and Steve knows him so well that doing this sort of thing together just feels like another adventure.
It’s too soon to feel so sure about something, they haven’t even kissed each other. For all Steve knows there might be nothing there for them to share. Maybe they’ll kiss and it’ll feel awkward and uncomfortable, maybe Tony didn’t even mean for this to be a date. It should make him sweat, should make him want to pace and question if he should cancel. Instead he is grinning at himself like a fool and knowing with absolute certainty that kissing Tony will be the single best thing in the world.
He finishes scrubbing his hands clean and runs some of the water through his hair to make it fall a little neater on his head. It sticks up a bit too much in the front, but he can’t bring himself to care.
This is going to happen, he is going to eat Il Ghiottone’s extra buttery carbonara and love it so much it’ll be the only thing he orders no matter how many times they go back. He will sit across from Tony and wear his favorite deep blue button up and black jeans and his hair will stick up too much in the front. It will be just like the hazy memory he gets every time he passes the restaurant on the street, and it will be perfect.
Tony actually comes to his floor to pick him up. Steve hears the elevator doors ping, hears him pace a few times in the foyer and tries to keep his grin under control when it takes the man a full forty seconds to knock. For a moment he considers waiting, considers making it seem like he hasn’t been sitting and staring at his watch for the past ten minutes in anticipation. Unfortunately, his body makes the decision for him and he is swinging open the door before Tony can even consider knocking again.
“Hi.” Tony blurts out, startled at Steve’s obvious urgency and it makes his entire body warm. It’s clear he is blushing when Tony bites his lips to keep back a chuckle. His eyes are soft though, warm and happy. If anything the flush seems to charm him and for all it is an involuntary reaction, Steve sort of wishes he could do it on command if only to keep that pleased look on Tony’s face.
“You look great.” Tony tells him, but his eyes are fixed on Steve’s face. They’ve been fixed on his face since the moment the door opened and Steve wants to do something crazy. He wants to kiss Tony right now, wants to grab his face in both his hands and press himself in close. They’ll fit together perfectly, he knows Tony’s facial hair will prickle against his own freshly shaved skin, remembers the tingle of it. He wants to experience it for real though, wants to put a solid focus to that memory, that maybe premonition.
“Thank you.” Steve huffs out when he realizes he’s just been standing in the doorway staring at Tony’s lips for a full half minute. He honestly couldn’t tell anyone what on earth Tony is wearing right now, but he could paint the exact shade of his eyes in the overbright light of the hall. “You, uh, you too.”
Tony beams, his eyes crinkle up and his lips pull to show his teeth and Steve wants to do something insane. Wants to go back into his bedroom and get the ring box and make an idiot out of himself.
Instead of completely losing his mind though, Steve forces himself to step out next to Tony and shut the door behind him. It puts his body close to Tony, near enough to feel his heat, but too far to be touching. Tony lets them linger like that for a moment, eyes locked and smiles stupidly big and bright. Then he clears his throat and steps back, gesturing to the elevator, “shall we?”
Steve laughs and nods and falls into step with him.
They are quiet for the elevator ride, glancing at each other and looking away like they are sharing a secret with each glance. They don’t always look up at the same time and without the deep brown locking him in place, Steve finally takes in what Tony is wearing. He nearly swallows his tongue.
A good part of his reaction can honestly be blamed on how well Tony wears a sport coat, but that isn’t all. Steve remembers seeing Tony just like this, hands in the pockets of his fitted black trousers and tiny smile tucked into the corners of his perfectly trimmed mustache. The T-shirt is black and Steve knows without looking there is a zoomed in picture of a cat’s face on the front. The cat is mostly white and has a brown patch covering it’s left ear and eye. Most of it will be covered now, the grey sport coat buttoned over his navel, but when they sit down he’ll open it and Steve will see the shirt. He commented on it last time, wonders if he should comment on it the same way again.
Not that they’ve done this before, they’ve never done this before. Steve would remember it better, would keep the memory close and protected like it contained a matter of national security. He shakes his head and looks back at Tony as the elevator doors open, meets his eyes and forgets all about his silly cat shirt.
Tony asks him to pick a car and Steve points to the Audi immediately. The seats are deep and Steve knows they’ll be enough leg room for him to feel comfortable. Plus this one has heated seats and it may only be october, but that is a luxury he really appreciates about the future.
Tony is giving him another one of those intense stares and Steve remembers the first time he sat in that Audi, remembers Tony in this same outfit picking it out for the exact reasons Steve chooses it now. He’s never been in that car before, never ridden in anything but a limousine with Tony Stark.
He tries a shaky smile and opens his mouth to defend his choice, completely at a loss for how to explain his thought process without sounding completely insane. Tony knows he rarely rides in anything but Shield issue SUVs and his own motorcycle. He’s never even really seen more of an Audi than it’s silhouette in this very garage.
Tony cuts him off before he can attempt anything though. Pressing two fingers to the small of his back, Tony guides him to the passenger door as it opens automatically. It feels absolutely absurd to be so moved by the gesture, but Steve’s grin grows more genuine all the same.
They make it to the restaurant without more hazy half memories flashing in Steve’s mind and he is familiar enough with Il Ghiottone’s to ignore the unreality at being seated in the familiar space. They sit at a table further to the back than where he always saw himself eating the pasta, but it feels more secluded and private. Plus, sitting in a new place helps pull him more firmly into the present moment and away from the fake past.
Tony unbuttons his suit jacket when he sits and Steve makes the comment he can feel sitting on the edge of his tongue. It makes Tony laugh like Steve knew it would and even though a part of him feels like that may have been cheating, the result makes him feel too warm for guilt.
The order drinks, or rather Tony orders them drinks. Tony orders the appetizers too and when the waiters comes by with them he orders their entries as well. Some part of Steve wants to protest, wants to insist that Tony is going a little overboard with the gentlemen act and that he can certainly open his own door and order his own meals. Most of him is so outrageously charmed by the silly gestures that he can’t make himself stop smiling long enough to really take a good sip of the wine.
Tony looks like the cat that caught the canary every time he glances up to find Steve grinning at him like a fool. Steve thinks he should always look like that. It makes him flush, makes him duck his head and cough into his fist, but that only seems to make Tony happier. It’s ridiculous how easy everything feels. Steve knew the talking would come easy, knew there would never come a time when he couldn’t find something to joke around about with Tony. The soft glances though, the little grins and the bumping of their feet under the table, that he never really considered. He could picture kissing Tony, could picture it before all the strange memories even started. He never anticipated how looking down to see Tony’s hand resting on the table would look like such a blatant invitation though.
Sliding his hand closer to Tony’s, he chances a glance up to see him mid sip and focused completely on the proximity of their hands. It makes Steve bold, fills his chest up with air and practically moves his hand of its own accord. Tony’s eyes immediately flicker up to meet his when Steve settles his palm over Tony’s fingers. Again, Steve can’t help but think that happiness looks beautiful on Tony. It softens every part of his face and makes his skin glow in the low candle light. His eyes are shining and Steve can make out flecks of green around the pupils. Those eyes are so warm, so captivating that Steve doesn’t feel Tony’s hand move until their fingers are already interlaced.
He drags his thumb up the side of Tony’s, feels the way their skin catches against the little scars and calluses littering Tony’s skin. His middle finger rests on the knuckle of Tony’s ring finger. He pulls it up and back over the skin there, imagines feeling brushed and imperfect tungsten instead.
It’s too soon to be thinking like that, so incrediblly too soon for him to feel this close to bursting with affection, with something deeper than can be named. Yet, he still opens that box every morning, still runs the pad of his finger up against the writing inside the band. From the first time he saw the thing he imagined it on a work rough hand, tan and masculine. It would fit Tony perfectly, would slide on and stay just where Steve settled it.
Steve swallows thickly when he realizes Tony stopped telling him about his upcoming trip to Japan. Looking up nearly steals all the air from his lungs. Tony is looking at him like he knows exactly what Steve is thinking. Tony is looking at him like he is thinking about the same thing, like he wants to see something on his finger as much as Steve. It’s too much, it’s far too much and Steve won’t let himself act as insane as he feels right now.
Yet, he knows it’s going to happen. He knows it like he knows Anna’s cat is thirteen years old, like he knows those paintings in Tony’s room are his, like he knows kissing Tony is the best feeling in the world. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter how or when or where. That ring is for Tony and Steve loves him and someday they’ll get there. Someday all these things will be true and maybe it’s all just the universe pushing him to accept it sooner, maybe it’s someone from the future trying to talk some sense into him, maybe he is just losing his mind. If Tony keeps looking at him like that he honestly won’t be able to bring himself to care.
They stay longer than anyone but Tony Stark would ever be allowed, lingering over coffee and dessert like they can’t just go back to the tower and sit in their black cushioned chairs to keep in each other’s company. Their hands have been laced together all night, Steve taking full advantage of the ambidexterity gifted to him by the serum.
When they are less talking and more running their fingers over each other’s, Steve suggests they call it an evening. He would feel bad about the lack of other patrons, but the waitress is smirking at him and Tony is leaving more tip than could ever be necessary. They take their time walking back to the Audi, steps slow and leisurely to draw out the time they can spend with their hands locked together. Tony tilts his head down to rest against Steve’s shoulder and there is no way on earth they weren’t built to fit together like this. Somehow the serum knew exactly how tall he needed to be for Tony to tuck so neatly into his side.
When they reluctantly make it to the car, Tony drops him at the passenger side again. It takes too long for them to stop grinning at each other, to untangle their fingers. When Tony slides into the driver's seat, Steve can only control himself long enough for Tony to pull out onto the street. If Tony is bothered by Steve insisting they hold hands even for the short drive back, his grin certainly does a poor job at conveying it.
Getting back out of the car takes just as stupidly long, but this time they have the excuse of conversation to blame. Tony is arguing about some sitcom Steve’s never seen and Steve is disagreeing with him on everypoint just to see the furrow between his brow get deeper and deeper. They’ve been sitting in the parked car for nearly ten minutes when Tony stops talking and turns to look at him with the most exaggerated expression of betrayal Steve’s ever seen.
“Are you fucking with me, Rogers?” Tony demands, but his hand is still in Steves and he makes no move to pull it away.
“Of course not.” Steve reassures, keeping his face serious even as his chest starts to shake with forced down laughter. Tony’s eyes narrow, but his lips are quirking up and the look just makes Steve fold like a bad hand of cards.
“You have no idea what show I am even talking about, do you?” Tony shouts and Steve laughs harder, free hand pressing into his chest as he bends forward. Tony’s own laugh joins in and Steve turns to take it all in, to savor the happiness etched into every inch of his face.
“Not a damn clue.” Steve admits and Tony lets out a sigh, fainted annoyance clear in the over exaggerated raise and drop of his shoulders. It reminds Steve of the armor and he realizes so many of Tony’s gestures are too large because he learned to convey them through the suit. It’s such a little thing to realize, a fact that really serves no purpose in the grand scheme, but Steve treasures it. Steve feels his heart full to bursting at the thought that he gets to realize these little things, that he gets to learn the insignificant facts that make up Tony Stark.
He pulls his hand free of Tony’s and steps out of the car because he wants their first kiss to be somewhere more comfortable then over the middle of Tony’s car. Tony is quick to follow him. He is still grumbling about Steve tricking him into their disagreement, but he slots himself into Steve’s side when they step into the elevator.
They’re quiet as the ride up and Steve doesn’t even think about where they’re going. His eyes are closed and he can feel the rhythm of Tony’s breathing against his arm. He wonders if they will spend the night together, if he might be able to talk Tony into at least sleeping next to each other. The empty side of his bed would fit Tony perfectly, Steve would fit exactly into the space Tony leaves open on his own bed.
The doors open then and Steve blinks to see the penthouse living room. His blankets is still tossed over the couch, but it’s clearly been moved. He wonders if Tony knows it belongs to him, if he covers himself in the soft fabric and thinks of Steve.
Tony steps out first and Steve follows like they’ve been connected by some invisible string and it can only be pulled so tight. It’s because of this, that they are standing so ridiculously close when Tony turns around to face him.
Tony jolts a little when he nearly slams his nose into Steve’s neck, but instead of backing up he just lifts his eyes to meet Steve’s.
“I had a good time.” Tony admits, like a secret for only Steve’s ears. His eyes are open and hopeful, but Steve only looks into them for a moment before glancing down to Tony’s lips. His tongue is already darting out, running along his bottom lip like it did when he asked Steve to come out with him. It travels slower this time, dragging from one corner to the next before slipping back into Tony’s mouth and pulling the lip in between his teeth as it goes.
“Me too.” Steve manages, voice tight and strangled. He can’t manage enough saliva to wet his own lips, can’t find enough presence of mind to do anything but stare at the plush skin tucked between Tony’s teeth. It slips out and Steve watches the chuckle form there, watches the sound puff out and cool the slick glimmer of saliva he can just make out on the surface.
“Please kiss me.” Someone says and Steve obeys, leans forward without thought and presses in to catch that bottom lip between his own.
For a second there is just the sensation of Tony’s smile, just the pressure of him kissing back. Then the world starts spinning and Steve stumbles backwards, clutching at his head as it starts to fracture and throb. He can feel the cry of pain travel up his throat, but the world is flashing too bright by the time it comes out for him to hear it.
They’ve kissed before, they’ve kissed so many times Steve’s done it in his sleep. They’ve gone to Il Ghiottone’s so often the waitress stopped begging him to try anything new. Steve’s room feels too quiet because he hadn’t slept there in weeks, had started keeping his straight razor in Tony’s bathroom over a year ago. That turned over photo is of them on their first vacation together, a selfie taken by Steve of the two of them tangled together in a hammock. It is blurry and Tony’s shirt is stained with BBQ sauce, but it’s been sitting there since last june. That blanket stopped being Steve’s the first time he left it with Tony before doing a week long OP for SHIELD. He paid for the ring on the first of september, picked it because it reminded him of the watch Tony gave him for their first anniversary.
Tony never needed to tell him he was Iron Man. He told the world three years before Steve even woke up. In another month, they’ll have been together for two years.
Steve blinks his eyes open to see Tony standing over him, face tight in worry. He is saying something, but it takes a minute for Steve to hear it, for him to feel the way Tony is shaking his shoulders. “Steve! Steve, what is going on?”
“Tony?” Steve manages and his vision is starting to clear, the world is starting to make sense again. For the first time in weeks he feels completely awake. How could he forget about Tony?
“Yes, it’s me. What just happened?” Tony is asking, pulling Steve to sit up. He runs his hands over Steve’s face, brushes back his hair. He tries to smile, but Steve can see how shaken he is, can see the tightness that’s been sticking to the edges of him all this time. “Don’t tell me kissing me was so bad you blacked out?”
“What?” Steve asks, shaking his head and trying to get everything to completely line up, “no, it… He trails off and finally sits up fully, taking in every piece of Tony’s face. He is sitting on his knees at Steve’s side and for weeks Steve didn’t know how much he loved him. “Tony!”
“Woah, careful.” Tony is saying, but Steve can’t care, can’t do anything but pull Tony into his lap. He needs to have him in his arms again, needs to bury his nose in the side of his neck and just breathe. Tony is laughing, but it sounds unsure. He isn’t melting into Steve like he usually does and it makes his heart break. He just pulls Tony closer, pleads with his actions for Tony to hold him. “Well, hello to you too. Wanna tell me why you are baby koala-ing me?”
How could he go so long without Tony’s fingers in his hair? How did he not realize it all came back to this feeling, that it all came back to this man? His voice shakes, he can’t control it. “Tony, god, Tony it was about you. It all, it was you.”
“I’m not following.” Tony admits, but his hand keeps running through Steve’s hair, the other is starting to rub circles into his back. It feels so perfect, feels like something his body’s been missing for years.
He understands it then. Tony’s been missing this too. All those looks, all that pain and sorrow when Steve walked away from him. Tony knew what they were to each other and Steve left him alone, Steve abandoned him. It took him over a month and a half to figure it out and even then it was Tony that got them here. Tony asked him out, Tony got Steve to kiss him, Tony did it all not knowing if Steve would ever come back to him.
“Tony, I remember.” Steve chokes out and he knows the minute Tony understands. The fingers in his hair freeze, the hand on his back spasms and clutches into the fabric of his shirt. He pulls back just enough to see Tony’s face, just enough to lift a hand from where it clutches Tony’s side and move it to cup his cheek instead. Tony’s eyes have been trying to tell him this whole time, wide and hopeful each time Steve looked at him. Steve runs a hand down Tony’s cheek and feels his chest tighten when his boyfriend shivers. “I remember everything, sweetheart.”
“You…” Tony starts, but it catches. His lower lip is trembling and his eyes brim over before Steve can say anything else. His voice is almost too soft to hear, too terrified, when he asks, “everything?”
“All of it.” Steve replies and catches Tony when he crumbles. His whole body collapses into Steve and he is gasping in deep breaths as he clutches Steve’s shirt in both hands. He presses in as close as they can, winds his legs around Steve’s waist and presses his face into Steve’s shoulder. Steve just holds him, grasps on just as tightly. How could he ever forget this?
“You remember, really?” Tony says into his neck, breathing still harsh but more controlled now. He lets his grip loosen just a bit, lets his head leave Steve’s neck and stares at him. His eyes are red rimmed, but no less beautiful than they were by the candle light earlier. Steve smiles, knows he must look just as wrecked as he feels, but Tony grinns back. He looks so happy, so destroyed by his own joy. “God, you know?”
Steve nods and then Tony is kissing him. His lips are salty and wet, but Steve could drown in them for all he cares. They kiss and kiss, mouths pressed hard enough to bruise, teeth and tongues and more passion than Steve can ever remember. He wants to fuse them together, wants to burrow himself into Tony’s skin and never leave. He went without this, he lost this and if Tony hadn’t tried so hard they may never have gotten it back.
Tony pulls away, but can’t stay away long and presses another kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth. He tries again and this time the kiss lands on Steve’s cheak, another on his forehead, his nose, his chin. They keep coming, all over his face, quick desperate pecks to every inch of skin Tony can find. “God, Steve. I missed you. I missed you.”
Steve shushes him, pulls him down to press his face back into Steve’s neck and rubs his back up and down, over and over. Tony is shaking but he doesn’t start to sob again and eventually the urgency starts to bleed away. He keeps his face where Steve pushed it, but after a few more minutes his body sags into the hold and he lets out all his air in a long sigh.
They stay like that, just breathing. He considers just leaving it here for now, thinks to just lift Tony up in his arms and take him to their bed. Something itches at his mind though and he knows they have more to say before he can let either of them sleep.
“How did this even happen?” He asks softly, being sure to keep his voice calm and keep rubbing into Tony’s back.
Without even a glance up, Tony lifts one hand and gestures vaguely at the ceiling. “J?” Is all Steve can hear, but it seems to do the trick because seconds later a holoscreen is blinking to life just feet from Steve’s face.
A image of the workshop comes into focus and with a soft click, the video starts to play.
Tony enters the workshop, slamming a stack of papers down on the workbench and tossing himself heavily into his spinning chair. He lets out a long guttural groan, and smashed both hands into his face. Then, he speaks. “J, remind me to murder the next person that suggests Pepper should step down.”
“Certainly, sir.” JARVIS responds and Tony just groans louder. Then he is jumping up and pacing the floor. His arms gesture wildly. Steve can see the frustration in every movement even through the video and tries to place the time of this recording. Tony is wearing a black tank top and sweats, but that is a normal enough outfit that it does very little to help him.
“I can’t believe people would think that would solve anything!” Tony is saying now, loud and biting. His hand slams down on the workbench and for a moment he is completely silent. Then his shoulders hunch and he lets out a deep sigh. “Her being CEO isn’t why this shit keeps happening any more than me dating Steve has anything to do with SI Stock.”
Then Steve gets it. He remembers watching the news with Tony, remembers those idiots blaming him for Pepper’s kidnapping. She’d been taken as bait for Iron Man sure, but the way they talked about it made it clear they thought Tony may as well have handed her over on a silver platter. They’d berated her for getting involved in something tied so closely to the Avengers and somehow spun it all around to pull their relationship into the discussion. Steve had been ready to storm the studio, but Tony had just stood up and left the room without a single word. At the time Steve thought it would be best to let him blow off his anger for a bit before going down to soothe him.
“I completely agree.” JARVIS is saying on the screen and Tony has moved back to his chair. He looks more weary than anything at this point. Steve wishes he’d followed right after him, wants to reach through the screen and comfort the Tony there. Even with the man cuddling into his chest as he watches, it feel like not enough. He pulls Tony closer into him even so.
“I just, fuck. I hate this. I hate how messy everything is, J.” Tony says, slouching down in the chair and lazily swaying it with his toe. He looks up, eyes just a little ways from the camera lense. “Sometimes I wish I would have read those note cards like SHIELD wanted. Things would be so much easier if I never would have said I was Iron Man.”
Nothing more than Tony’s swaying happens on the screen and the video cuts out a few seconds later.
Steve opens his mouth to ask how something like that could have lead to the last terrible month and a half. Before he can voice his confusion, JARVIS speaks.
“The change in everyone’s behavior began twenty three seconds post this recording. There was also a large energy outpouring from one of the artifacts recovered in Athens at roughly the same time. However, no other wishes were able to replicate those readings.”
Steve blinks and searches back in his memory for the image of the artifact. It comes up, bright and focused like his memories should be, like they’ve been since that fateful day decades ago. That mission was simple, requiring just himself, Natasha and Thor. They brought back the strange stones that appeared after defeating the small group of visiting aliens. Those things have been in Tony’s workshop for more than three months now.
“I tried.” Steve hears Tony say, feels the way the words move his lips against the skin of his neck. “I tried over and over, but no one knew and I couldn’t say anything.” A shaky breath and Tony pulls back. His face is begging, apologetic and heartbroken. “I tried and nothing would come out.”
“Tony.” Steve says in as soothing a tone as he can muster and runs both his hands up over his shoulder, through his hair and down to cup his face. “I’m so sorry.”
“God, Steve.” Tony sobs, but he stops himself from collapsing again. Steve can feel him pull himself up, can feel the desire to cling back into Steve radiating off of him. He wants to pull him in, wants to keep him right here where they can see each other and Steve can know it’s all real again. “I missed you. I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, too.” Steve swears and it is completely true. He missed Tony so much he could feel it clinging to him. Every hazy memory was just him missing Tony, just him trying to get himself to realize the gaping hole in his reality needed to be filled.
“When you started coming down and eating with me, I was so happy.” Tony admits and he smiles, faint and wobbly, but real all the same. “God Steve, I went weeks just wanting you to sit on the couch with me. I just wanted to talk to you. I just wanted you to tell me it was going to be okay.”
“It’s okay now, we figured it out.” Steve shushes him again and finally gives in to the desire to have them pressed close again. Tony goes willingly, laying his cheek on Steve’s shoulder and slumping to let Steve take all his weight. It feels like he can finally fill his lungs all the way with Tony’s weight pressing into them. They went too long without this, Steve can’t let another minute pass without holding Tony. “We’ll figure out why it happened.”
They stay sitting like that for a while, just breathing against each other. It feels so good, feels as good as it always has everytime Steve gets to have him like this. He wants to fall asleep with Tony’s back pressed against his chest, wants to wrap his lover tight in his arms and keep him safe from all the loneliness. He can’t even begin to imagine how alone Tony must have felt, how much it killed him to see Steve and not be able to reach out. If Steve ever had to see Tony, ever had to watch him go about his day without being able to hold him… Well, he honestly wouldn’t be able to do it. Ever since the first night they spent together all those months ago, Steve’s known his arms were made to hold Tony. He knows his love for Tony is something that lives deep in his bones, something beyond conscious thought and memories. Even when he didn’t know what Tony meant to him, he wanted him. Ached to have him near.
Tony takes a deep breath and Steve pulls himself out of his thoughts. “I thought, maybe it was for the best.” Tony whispers into the meat of his shoulder, almost too quietly for even Steve’s hearing to pick up. It chills him to his very core. “Maybe you’d be happier if you didn’t know I–”
“Never.” Steve hisses, arms pulling Tony too tight, but he relishes the feel of the reactor digging into his sternum, the feel of his body tucked into his arms. Tony shivers, but he doesn’t flinch or try to wriggle free and Steve thinks he needs it just as much. Needs it more.
“Then you told me about the ring and I couldn’t even look at you.” Tony continues and Steve buries his face in Tony’s hair at the thought. It was supposed to be something special, something wonderful and happy, but this terrible thing ruined it. That artifact tainted something that should have only brought them happiness. If holding Tony didn’t feel like the very reason for his existence right now, Steve would be marching down to the workshop and destroying the thing with his bare hands. “It hurt so bad Steve. I didn’t leave the workshop for two days.”
“Tony, I’m sorry.” Steve beggs, rubbing his nose deeper into Tony’s hair. He smells like his expensive styling gel and the sandalwood soap Steve got him to start using. “I’m so sorry sweetheart.”
Tony pulls away from him, settles into his lap so they can see each other’s faces again. His skin is blotchy from crying, but his eyes are clear and warm. His smile is contagious, so bittersweet and beautiful. “I missed you so much, Steve.”
“I stayed up every night just looking at that ring you know.” Steve tells him, trailing and hand down his left arm to catch his hand. He pulls it up to his lips and presses a kiss into the skin above his third knuckle. “For days, I just sat on the bed and flipped it open and closed.”
“Why?” Tony asks gently, eyes fixed on the hand now clasped in Steve’s and pressed into his chest.
“I kept thinking that I wanted to give it to you. It didn’t make any sense because I didn’t even really know you. But it was meant for you and I knew it.” Steve traces over Tony’s fingers, never looking away from Tony’s eyes as he speaks.
“Steve,” is all Tony seems able to say in response. His smile wavers, then brightens. He laughs and leans forward to brush their lips together.
“I wanted to propose there, you know.” Steve tells him when they pull apart. He lets Tony take back his hand, moving his own to Tony’s waist and smiling when Tony draped both arms over his shoulders.
“At Il Ghiottone?” Tony asks, smile unreasonably bright.
“Yeah, I was gonna take you out, make a whole day about it.” Steve replies, he lets out his breath in one long exhale and grins. “Was gonna take you to that car show in september. Then after I’d take you to dinner, get them to give us a private room.” He leans forward to brush his nose against Tony’s and grins brighter when Tony chuckles at the gesture. “Just me and you.”
“Yeah?” Tony asks him, pulls his bottom lip between his teeth in that way that’s driven Steve crazy as long as he’s known him. He can’t help but lean further in to capture it between his own teeth. He delights in the soft gasp that earns him and soothes the bite with a slow swipe of his tongue. Tony melts a little deeper into his lap and Steve takes another long moment to just press their lips flush against each other. When he pulls back, Tony’s eyes are closed and he leans forward to chase his kiss before opening them.
“Can’t believe you took me there on our second first date.” Steve tells him, giving into his pout with two quick pecks.
“If I had to do it all over, I wanted to keep somethings the same.” Tony tells him with a shrug. The idea makes something in Steve’s gut grow warm and liquid.
“You’d do it all over?” He asks, voice a little rough and raspy.
“Steve, I’d date you in 100 lifetimes if I could.” Tony replies, voice gone serious and eyes boring deeply into his own. It’s the same intense look Steve’s come to long for, the one Tony fixed on him so many times these past weeks.
“Tonight I wanted to propose.” Steve says without thought, but he can’t regret the admission. It is crazy to think of it in the context of the memories he had at the time, but here and now every bit of it makes sense. “That’s why I grabbed your hand. I kept thinking about that ring on your finger and I felt like I was losing my mind.” Tony is looking at him with more love than Steve’s ever seen. It makes him want to do something crazy, makes him want to run into the bedroom and not leave for days on end. “I wanted to tell you I loved you when we got to the door.”
Tony’s face scrunches up at that and he lets out a gasping sob. His eyes squeeze shut, but a few tears manage to peek out at the edges and Steve lifts one hand to wipe them away.
“I love you.” Tony tells him, fierce and more solid than his shaking voice should make possible. Steve feels water burning in his own eyes, watches as Tony’s face blurs out and then comes back into focus as the water toples out and down his cheeks. Tony wipes his away too.
“I love you. So much.” Steve tells him, head shaking because that isn’t even enough, nothing will ever be enough to explain how deeply he means it. Somehow though, Steve thinks Tony understands him, thinks the endless warmth of his eyes is there because he knows it.
“Do you still want to?” Tony asks him.
“Propose?” Steve agrees, smile pulling up on one side of his face. He feels a ball of bright light pressing into his ribcage, feels hope filling up his chest until nothing more could possibly fit.
“Yeah.” Tony beams at him, so stunningly happy that Steve can’t stop himself from stealing another kiss. Can’t stop himself from stealing a couple more after that.
“More than anything.” He swears, pressing the words into Tony’s lips to make them more true.
“Can we go look at the ring?” Tony asks and Steve’s chest overflows a million times over. Both of them are red eyed and tear stained, there is snot rubbed into Steve’s left shoulder and Tony’s hair looks like a tornado ran through it. Steve has never loved anything so dearly in his entire life.
Carefully he stands, pulling Tony up along with him. They both smile when Steve takes Tony’s hand and weaves their fingers together. The width of his knuckles is familiar and solid between Steve’s, but he knows why now. He wants to always know.
“Yes, come on.” And Tony follows him without question.